x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'I had no choice ... I have two husbands'

Decades of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide have led to such an acute shortage of brides that Indian men are being forced to share.

BHILWARA, INDIA // For several years, Sohan Singh, 24, stretched himself thin in pursuit of a bride. He advertised his availability as a groom through a popular matrimonial service; he hired a traditional matchmaker to peddle his "eligible bachelor" status in town; his relatives scoured neighbourhoods for a match, his photograph and janma patri - or Vedic birth chart - in hand. He also abandoned demands for dowry, lest it threaten his nuptial prospects. But Mr Singh had no luck. Eventually, frustrated, he gave up, only to collude with his elder brother, Mohan Singh, 30, to do the unthinkable: he convinced him to share his wife. "I had no choice but to submit to my husband and brother-in-law," said Manu Kanwar, 26, hiding her face behind a ghunghat, or Indian veil. "I have two husbands." This is not a peculiar one-off case of polyandry in this sun-baked desert town in western India. The challenge of finding a female partner is slowly becoming an all too common problem, leading to rising social tension and increasing instances of crime and sexual violence against women - child marriages, girl trafficking - besides an increase in such practices as polyandry. The shortage of brides, women's rights activists say, is indicative of the acute scarcity of young girls in the region, a result of years of unbridled sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, which have reached alarming proportions. The gender ratio in India is the most skewed in the world. The 2001 census registered a ratio that had plummeted from 976 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991 to 927 girls per 1,000 boys, indicating that about 900,000 female foetuses were aborted, or girl infants killed, every year. The country's Sample Registration System data for 2002-2004 revealed a further drop to 882 girls per 1,000 boys. Across vast swathes of still-patriarchal Indian society, millions of families have preferred to have sons over daughters. Sons, considered pivotal to family welfare, continue family lineage and are sources of social and financial security to parents, while daughters have traditionally been considered a burden for the social obligation of paying dowry to the groom's family. In his previous term as prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in a national conference, described the dwindling number of girls as a "national shame". "If you don't allow girls to be born," said Tara Ahluwalia, a women's rights activist in Bhilwara town, "we are creating an abnormal world in which women, in short supply, are exploited." Women have not vanished overnight, she points out. Years of easy access to mushrooming ultrasound clinics that scan the sex of a foetus are to blame, she said. India's Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994 prescribes a fine of up to US$2,500 (Dh9,000) and three years in jail for those found guilty of female foeticide. But despite being banned, sex-selective abortion has swelled into a $244 million business. About 50 ultrasound clinics, banking on the lucrative business, have sprouted in Bhilwara in the last few years. Last year, three of them were sealed after they were found breaching norms of the 1994 act. But the crackdown was not nearly enough, Ms Ahluwalia said. "Cases drag on for years," said Ms Ahluwalia, who testified against one clinic owner caught blatantly conducting sex determination tests. "The wheel of law grinds too slowly." But clinics that perform these tests are not only to blame. At Bhilwara's swanky Shree Sidhivinayak Hospital, a sign at the entrance reads in bold: "Sex determination is not done here." Yet, Dr Rekha Sharma, the clinic's owner, said some patients, willing to offer good money, unabashedly ask for it. "Recently, one woman pregnant with her fifth child begged me to do it between sobs. 'I already have four daughters. My in-laws harass me for a son. Please just tell me before it's too late - do I have a boy or a girl in my womb?' " Ms Kanwar, who is trapped in a polyandrous relationship because of the relentless killing of female foetuses, said she "was compelled" to abort her first baby six years ago, when Mohan Singh, her first husband, discovered it was a girl. She gave birth to three girls and a son after that, uncertain which brother was the father of each. "I refused to kill my daughers," she said. "I put my foot down. I explained to my husbands that we are trapped in this relationship because girls have gone missing in this town." Ms Kanwar's children, as they have gotten older, are confused about whom to call father. Tarred as "the woman with two husbands", she is a subject of ridicule in her village. They have had to move houses twice already as the social ostracisation became unbearable. "The only positive development," Ms Ahluwalia said, "is that demand for dowry has gone down amid the shortage of brides". achopra@thenational.ae